Saturday, 10 April 2010

The Infinite Abyss

It's Friday, 2nd April 2010, 4am in Mecca. Less than 100 meters away from Ka'abah, there I sit waiting for sholat fajar time. As I read through the verses of Al Qur'an translation, large mass of Muslims from different parts of the world gathered forming a unity in front of me, circling the sacred place built by Abraham in the Paganism days. It is a beautiful sight, it is truly a blissful moment.

In exactly 2 1/2 hours' time, in Luang Prabang, Laos, the Buddhist monks will be preparing their morning ritual in the village, while in Amritsar, India, the Sikhs will conduct their clean up ritual of their beautiful Golden Temple. But today, the day belongs to the Christians, who are commemorating good Friday and the joyful Easter celebration in the upcoming Sunday.

Indeed, in its core, religion is a peaceful ideology that puts order out of chaos in a society. It is a unifying way of life, with beautiful rituals and celebrations that have heavily influenced our many societies in the world for the past 2000 years or so. Today, from around 6 billion people in the world, there are around 2 billion Christians, almost 1.5 billion Muslims, more than 900 million Hindus, 400 million Buddhists, 24 million Sikhs and 13 million Jews, among the largest religious population. The statistics show it all, a proof of how big religious influence is in the world today, as the generally accepted answer of our existence in this life.

One deep look into history, however, and all of this mindset will be seriously challenged, as the world doesn't always operate this way before. Most scientists agree that the world is now around 4.5 billion years old, with the origins of man can be tracked back to 6 million years ago in Africa. Having said that, the oldest civilization ever found up until now is in Mesopotamia at around 7000 years old.

Hence, when all put together, these facts leave us with a really big mystery on our very existence as human beings. If the cave men of the stone-age lived only 6 million years ago while the earth has existed 4,494 million years before that, then what really happened before the period of origins of man? And what happened along the way, between the stone age and Mesopotamia? Now this right here, I believe, is the defining line between human ability and the infinite abyss. 

At the mercy of a mysterious fate

We all are at the mercy of a mysterious fate. In 24 February 1582, A Roman Catholic Pope Gregory XIII changed the commonly used “Julius calendar” with “Gregorian calendar”, a calendar system referring to the date of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the calendar system that we all now eventually use, except in few cases like in Ethiopia. The adoption of the Gregorian Calendar sets the date straight between BC (roughly interpreted as the lost period before Jesus was born) and AD (the time when Jesus was born as the guide for humankind).

The same approach can also be found in Al Qu'ran, where the Islamic calendar began from the moment the prophet Muhammad Hijra or moved from Mecca to Ancient Yatrib (modern-day Medina) with the early Muslim community; leaving behind a period called the Jahiliyah, a period described as the lost and chaotic period where the Paganism was the majority faith.

However, a reading into the history of Paganism will give us a completely different view on this polytheistic religion, a different approach of order out of chaos, similar with other polytheistic religions in our first 5000 years of civilization. Ancient cultures such as Greek, Egypt, Mayan, Roman and the still existing cultures in Indian subcontinent all have beautiful sets of believe and live their whole life truly believing in multiple gods as the generally accepted answer to their existence in the world. They stored order in their society with sets of rules and rituals, with core values similar with today’s monotheism religions.

Had we live in the BC era, or the Jahiliyah era, where the polytheism was the generally accepted answer to our existence, would we become lost? Would we not have the chance to enter heaven? Who would get to heaven for that matter, as nobody believed in monotheism yet? 

The Axial Age idea of heaven 

Then come a period what theologian Karen Armstrong called the Axial Age, the period where the social-political circumstance in the world at that period of time has created a cultural shift in their respective regions, which eventually gave birth to the Abraham Religion in the Middle East, Confucius in China, and Logic in Ancient Greece, among others. The spread of these ideologies across the world, especially the Abraham Religion (Judaism, Christianity and later on Islam) as the majority monotheistic religious idealism, started to change the way human kind see their existence in this world, in the form of the Sole Creator and the idea of heaven and hell.

Heaven, it is commonly believed, is reserved for those who do good in life, while hell for those who do bad in life. But after 2000 years-or-so of existence, the religious bibles of the Abraham Religion, though written in a vast analogical context, could only cover up to such limited modern contexts. Can the killings conducted by US Soldiers in Iraq be justified religiously? If so what's the difference with the "Jihad" conducted by Iraqis on killing the occupying US Soldiers? Would the derivatives traders who shorted the sub-prime mortgage CDOs in 2007, thus contributing to the crash of the sub-prime mortgage market, can be held accountable of ruining many lives in today's crisis-ridden world? Will their profit-making trade reserve them a place in hell?

Slowly but sure modern-day people are starting to question the very essence of religion, and choose to believe more in Atheism and scientific proofs, as more and more scientific findings have emerged to seriously challenge the pivotal moments in religious history. Since 1957 we know that above us is not heaven but the outer space with planets, galaxies and mysteries. The findings from archaeology, science and historical investigation reveals that Moses didn't necessarily perform a miracle when the Red Sea was divided. And Charles Darwin's Origins of Species theory may provide the biggest challenge to the believe that God create us all.

With all of these external struggles, religious ideologies may face even more daunting task to defend itself with the emerging of internal struggles, with a bunch of people who exploit their respective religion, to poorly justify their unholy conduct. Cases such as the rise of so-called Militant Islamists and the scandals involving the Catholic Priests, among many others, are damaging the image of the real religion as a peaceful and pure teachings of life.

Indeed, like many other sensitive matters, all of these issues have many different angles and a lot of gray areas. Hence, it is understandable that  religion becomes a hot topical debate that divide our modern-day society; with religious fanatics at one side, scientific findings on the other side and the pure religious devotees as the moderates that make the silent majority. 

The silence says it all

So what's the future for today's monotheistic beliefs? Karen Armstrong believes that we are now on the verge of a second Axial Age. And all of these 2012 doomsday prophecy by the ancient societies does not necessarily translated as the end of the world, but instead the possible big cultural or social-political shift from the one we have for thousands of years to a move towards the unknown territory, or towards yet another abyss.

Some speculations about the "doomsday prophecy" have been around for several hundred years in the religious-based textbooks. A doomsday scenario analogically explained in the Christianity bible suggest that the world will come to an end when Palestine and Israel reach a peaceful state and when Europe are united to become one. Or from the Islamic scriptures, the prophet Muhammad once said that in the reckoning day there will be 73 different forms of Islam, but only 1 remains in the right path. This perhaps could explain the numerous "branches" of Islam or Islam-based ideologies such as Sunni, Shi'ite, Sufi, Khomeinism, Ishmaelism, the Kharijites, the Muslim Brothers, Wahhabism, and several smaller ideologies like FPI in my country, to mention a few. Or in the Christianity "branch" this would come down to Catholicism, Protestantism, Greek Orthodox, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Unitarianism, Baptism, Quakerism, Amish, Episcopalianism, Methodism, Jehovah's Witness, Mormonism and Pentecostalism, among others.

Of course the problem is, every single one of them claims to be the "true and pure form" of their respective religion, and no single human being can determine which one is indeed the pure one. But the big question now is, does it really matter?

At their own respective time Socrates, Confucius, Shiva, Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus Christ, Prophet Muhammad, L Ron Hubbart, Joseph Smith and many more ideological leaders all have 2 things in common. Firstly they are all great leaders, and secondly they all preach the same Golden Rule that tries to put order out of the chaotic human irrationality: treat others the way you want to be treated. And no matter who we are and in which society we live in, we should always practice the good values in whatever faith(s) we truly believe in, and practice it according to the Golden Rule.

Only then we would realize that none of these religious issues matter. Because, the silent majority of religious devotees just live their lives peacefully practicing their own religion, without having to force what they believe to other people. That approach is what makes a small community of Zoroastrian religion still exist in Iran, and thus "survived" the first Axial Age. And that approach is what makes Voodoo religion (the religion, not the demonized Hollywood version) still hugely popular in West Africa and now in Haiti. Because it's not about the teachings, but about the devotees who practice the teachings. It's not religion that is violent or peaceful, but people that is violent or peaceful. And so ANY ideology can either be good or bad, depending on the practitioners.

Throughout our 7000 years of civilization, human beings have always try to define the meaning of our existence, of who we are and why are we here, without ever getting any confirmation back. Some rituals and beliefs live on, some evolved and some vanished through time. But no matter how we live our lives, and what belief(s) we subscribe to, in the end we all have the same destination: to reach the mountaintop. Some might feel that the way from the west is the best path, others feel that the south path is better. But it doesn't really matter where we take the path to climb the mountain from, as long as we get there. And the mountaintop could be anything. It could be God, it could be heaven, or it could be peace and harmony. It could be scientific breakthrough, redemption from suffering, the state of Nirvana. Or it could be the ideology to put order out of our chaos.